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1 God has decreed all things that occur,1 and this he has done in himself, from all eternity, by the perfectly wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably.2
An inventor would not build a machine that served no purpose. A general would not go to war without a plan. An architect does not begin a building without a detailed set of drawings. God did not create without a purpose and plan in mind. The inventor, general and architect determine beforehand what they want to do and how they want to accomplish it. God too determines what he will do and how he will do it. The difference between man’s plans and God’s is that God’s always work just as he purposed them. Because he is eternal, time injects no uncertainties that force him to change his plans. Because he is all-knowing and all-wise, he never makes mistakes that need to be corrected down the line. He did not merely plan the broad sweeps of history, but all that should happen in time: that Jeremiah should be a prophet, not a soldier; that a man named Cyrus should give the decree to send his people home; that the Ruler over Israel should be born in Bethlehem.
When we say that everything that happens is included in God’s decree there are many people who find this impossible to believe. Often it is thought that such statements grow out of a system of thought rather than the study of Scripture. We believe God has decreed all things though, not because of some abstract notion of what his sovereignty involves, but because of the testimony of his Word. There we discover that God has ordained: good and evil events (Is 45:7, Amos 3:6, Job 1:21, Jer 15:2), sinful acts (Gen 50:20, Lk 22:22, Act 2:23, 4:27-28), the free acts of men (Prov 16:1, 9, 21:1; Rom 8:28), ‘chance’ occurrences (1 Ki 22:28-34, Prov 16:33), the details of our lives (Job 14:5, Ps 139:16, Mt 10:29-30, Jam 4:15), the affairs of nations (2 Ki 5:1, Dan 2:21), and the final destruction of the wicked (1 Sam 2:25, Prov 16:4, Rom 9:17). It might be easy enough for some to dismiss the universal scope of God’s decree if there were only an isolated teaching on it in one or two passages of Scripture, but its truth is found throughout the Bible.
Since one cannot predict with certainty a specific event, as God does, unless all the events leading up to it are also part of the unchangeable plan, the details are important. How could He proclaim hundreds of years in advance that a man named Cyrus would free his people if He did not plan for the birth of a king in Persia with the name Cyrus? And though men are involved in his plan, God did not consult with man along the way to determine how best to lay out his plan (Rom. 11:34), but found his own perfect, good and holy will sufficient for determining what was best. He freely and sovereignly chose his course without looking to see what man would do or how man would respond to his actions.
Yet he has done this in such a way that God is neither the author of sin, nor does he share with anyone in sinning,3
Even though God has decreed all that should happen he is a holy God and thus cannot in any sense be considered the author of sin. The evil that man commits is predetermined by God, but it is still the free choice of man. God worked through Satan to incite David to take a census and bring about God’s judgment (2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1). God fulfilled his purposes by working through the wicked deeds of Satan and David. Likewise we read that the Jews wickedly handed Jesus over to be crucified in accordance with God’s predetermined plan (Acts 2:23). God used the wicked plans of evil men to accomplish his holy purposes respecting justice in David’s case and redemption in the case of Jesus. He demonstrated his holy and just character while using the free choices of ungodly men to bring his foreordained plan to fruition. Because he ordained these wicked deeds they were sure to come to pass. Nevertheless, these deeds were freely chosen by men uncoerced by any outside force and are thus deeds for which they are responsible.
Some believe that if God decrees the wicked actions of men he is responsible for them even if he does not force men to act wickedly. To relieve God of this responsibility they say he does not sovereignly decree wicked actions, but only permits them. This recourse does not, however, help their cause. If a man is aware that his minor son is planning to commit a violent crime with the gun and the training in the use of that gun that he has given him but does nothing to stop him, can he escape responsibility for the son’s crime when it is committed? If he tells the court that he did not order or encourage his sin to commit the crime and even warned him of the penalties involved, will that relieve him of culpability? Saying that God only permits his creatures to use their freedom and gifts he has given them to do evil is not the solution some think it is. Some get around this problem by denying God has knowledge of man’s future actions, but that is so far from the Biblical truth it does not deserve further comment. If the preservation of some distorted view of human freedom requires that we strip God of his omniscience, then it is not worth having.
We can set this down as a fact grounded in Scripture that cannot be denied: God’s will is the cause of all things that are. Whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. If we ask why God has done something, the answer is, because he has willed it. If we go further to ask why he willed it then we are asking for causes and reasons higher than God, and none can be found. (Calvin, Institutes, 3:23:2). In other words, things do not happen merely because God has permitted them to happen, but because he has willed them to happen. We may not understand how God’s decrees can include evil actions without making him the author of evil, but we know they do include evil, and that everything God does is righteous.
nor does this violate the will of the creature, nor is the free working or contingency of second causes taken away but rather established.4 In all this, God’s wisdom is displayed in directing all things, as is his power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.5
God sovereignly directs all that goes on in our world, but does so in such a way that the will of man is not abolished. God is sovereign, but man is still responsible for the choices he makes in life. God decrees all that happens, but in such a way as to make use of secondary causes. For example, God not only determines that a man will be saved, he also determines that he will be saved when another man proclaims to him the good news about Jesus Christ. God not only determines the ends or goals he wants to see accomplished, he also determines the means that will be used to reach them. The intricate weaving of God’s will and man’s, of means and ends in such a way that God’s plan and purpose is absolutely certain gives testimony to his divine wisdom, power and faithfulness.
Part of the problem many have when it comes to the interplay of God’s will and man’s will stems from a misunderstanding of what free will is. Reformed writers are not averse to speaking of man’s free will, so long as the term is properly understood. Very simply, an act that is done voluntarily is an act that springs from man’s free will. A man exercises his free will when he chooses, on the basis of reasons that seem compelling to him, to act one way rather than another. He may freely choose to eat ice cream because of the pleasure it brings, or he may freely choose not to eat ice cream because he wants to avoid certain health risks. In either case he freely acts on the basis of reasons that are sufficient for him.
Free will, however, does not mean what the Arminian wants it to mean. To say that a man is free does not mean that at any moment he can choose to do anything. When falling from a twenty story building a man may not choose to stop two feet above the ground. When caught in traffic ten miles from an appointment he must be at in five minutes a man may not choose to materialize in the conference room. A Christian in China cannot simply choose that tomorrow his country will be a democratic nation in which freedom of religion is considered a fundamental right. We may choose and act only according to the limitations determined by our nature and circumstances. Man is free to do whatever he can do. Man has a free will, but because he is depraved in nature he may not choose to act righteously. God does not violate man’s will by decreeing his evil acts for man freely chooses to act wickedly. Divine sovereignty and human freedom are not inconsistent and mutually exclusive principles. God’s activity is simultaneous and coextensive with man’s and at the same time determinative (Rushdoony in Waldron, 65).
2 Although God knows everything which may or can come to pass under all imaginable conditions,6 yet he has not decreed anything because he foresaw it in the future, or because it would come to pass [anyway] under certain conditions.7
If God decrees all things that come to pass, then man has no free will and God is responsible for evil. At least, this is the way some think. To escape these conclusions these people offer a simple solution: God does not know everything because he has decreed it, but knows what will happen simply because he has looked into the future and seen it. God sees the free decisions of his creatures ahead of time. At first glance this seems to preserve both God’s perfect knowledge and man’s free will, but it does no such thing. If God knows from eternity the spouse I will marry, then I can marry no other spouse than that one. If it is not possible to act in any other way than the one God has always known about, then that would not be a free choice, at least according to the definition of free that those who reject the decrees of God hold to. This approach also does nothing to relieve God of the responsibility for evil that some see if he decrees all things that come to pass. If God is omniscient and created this world, then he brought into being a world in which he knew Hitler would be responsible for putting to death six million Jews. If I bring into my house a machine that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt will cause the death of every member of my family, am I free from any responsibility for their death simply because I say I did not want them to die?
God does not work all things out according to the free choices we make, but “according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:11). He did not look ahead and decide to decree our country’s existence because of the actions of men who settled here 400 years ago. Instead, “He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). He did not scour the future looking for a man like Cyrus who would be kind to his people, but instead said, “It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire’” (Is 44:28). God’s decisions are not based on man’s actions, past, present or future. They are based on his own good pleasure. Let us be thankful for this.
3 By God’s decree, and for the demonstration of his glory, certain human beings and angels are predestined (or foreordained) to eternal life through Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glorious grace.8
From the free acts of men to the random roll of the lot, all that happens takes place according to the immutable decree of God. This is true even with respect to the salvation of men. The One who has planned all things and determined the very number of our days would not leave so important a matter as our salvation to chance. Though all men deserve to endure the full wrath of God, he has chosen to give some eternal life instead of the eternal death they richly deserve. The plan of God concerning salvation is not a general one aimed at all men indiscriminately, but has as its object certain men. He did not elect Christ and then announce that all who would join themselves to him would be saved. In other words, God did not choose a plan and tell any who would accept that plan would be saved. He did not elect a plan, he elected certain men. By snatching them like burning sticks from a fire (Amos 4:11) God revealed his glory by manifesting his incomprehensible grace towards doomed and dying rebels.
The very idea that God would choose some and not others is repugnant to many people because it violates their sense of fairness. Of course, this same sense of fairness has led many to reject the notion of eternal punishment, a doctrine taught with equal clarity in the pages of Scripture. We hold to the doctrine of election because it makes the most sense of the biblical data. The very language of election implies selection. Knowing the history of the Jewish people we read “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2) and know that election involved the selection of one nation out of all the others to be treated differently. The very meaning of the word elect or choose indicates a picking out, a selection, a decision between two or more options. When we tell the waiter at a restaurant which menu option we choose he is not free to bring us back anything from the kitchen that happens to be available. A choice narrow the limits to one among many. When Paul speaks of God’s election in Romans 9 he rightly understands the objections of those who consider it unfair. If election meant nothing more than choosing those who would choose him, then no one would consider that unfair. People may reject the idea that God chooses some for life, but to do so they must empty the meaning from the very word under discussion.
Others are left to continue in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of his glorious justice.9
From God’s choice of Israel over other nations (Dt 7:6) to his Jesus’ choice of the disciples rather than theirs of him (Jn 15:16) to the Lord’s choice of Jacob over Esau before either was born (Rom 9:10-13), the language and activity of election is so frequent and clear that it cannot be ignored except by willfully closing our eyes to it. Even those who believe salvation rests on God’s sovereign choice find it difficult sometimes to accept the counterpart of the doctrine of election: reprobation. This was called by Calvin “the horrible decree,” meaning that it was a work of God that instills dread and awe in those who contemplate it. By choosing some to bless, God sovereignly and intentionally chooses to leave others without his blessings. As his mercy is exalted by his choice to save some from the penalty of their sin, so his justice is magnified by his choice to leave others in their unregenerate spiritual state and punish them for their sins. In reminding us that this decree was intended to show forth God’s justice we see that it is not merely an act of sovereign power, but one that manifests God’s character as just. He does not punish men merely because he can, but because they are sinful.
Reprobation as much as election is a consequence of God’s eternal decree. We are not, therefore, to think of God as decreeing the salvation of some, but only permitting the condemnation of all others. Paul tells us that the objects of God’s wrath have been prepared for destruction, and as such are contrasted with those he prepared in advance for glory (Rom 9:22-23). The implication is clear enough that both have been prepared by God for their eternal destinies. We must nevertheless note that there is a different character to how God carries out these two decrees. With regard to the elect God provides what they did not have: grace, righteousness, life. With regard to the reprobate God withholds what would otherwise lead to the enjoyment of those same blessings (Is 6:9-10, Mk 4:11-12). God does not plant evil in their hearts that was not there before as he plants good in the hearts of the elect, but only withholds what would change them. No wonder Calvin calls this a “horrible,” awesome decree. It brings us to realize that as much as we understand about God and his ways because he has revealed himself to us, there is still much we do not understand. Though we cannot by our finite minds explain God’s actions, we confess by faith that in all his ways he is just and wise. Isaiah tells us God’s thoughts are as much higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth (Is 55:9; cf. Job 11:7-9). It is no wonder then that we cannot grasp all that he plans and does. We cannot understand, but we can trust, and when we do we are driven to a deep and abiding humility for we must acknowledge that our salvation rests on nothing other than the grace of God who chose us not for anything good he saw in us, but simply according to his good pleasure.
4 Those angels and human beings who are predestined and foreordained to eternal life, are specifically and irreversibly designated, and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished.10
God does not elect in general. The number of those chosen by God for salvation is precisely and unalterably fixed. Those he foreknew, he predestined, those he predestined, he called; those he called, he justified; those he justified, he glorified (Rom 8:29f). Those who will finally be saved and enter God’s eternal kingdom are the very ones, down to the last person, who he predestined to that salvation. This is not an election of a plan, but an election of individuals. It is a great comfort to every Christian that God did not simply choose that salvation be made available, but that he chose to save me, that he knows me by name and that his work in my life will unfailingly reach his appointed end. Not even one he foreknew will fail to be glorified.
5 God chose those human beings who are predestined to life before the foundation of the world, in accordance with his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will.
The basis of our election is nothing other than the good pleasure of God’s will. When we are asked why God should choose one person over another our only response is that he has done so for reasons known only to him, reasons he has not seen fit to reveal to us. All we know is that it is according to his good pleasure, that is, that delight prompted him to choose a people for himself. In accord with his loving, unchangeable purpose he chose out of the whole of mankind some to enjoy everlasting glory in his presence. Election then is not an act of bare will or random choice, but is born in the love of God for men.
God chose them in Christ for eternal glory, solely out of his free grace and love,11 without anything in the creature as a condition or cause moving him to choose them.12
Election is based on free grace and undeserved love. God did not peer into the future and see those who would repent deeply enough, or sacrifice enough or believe completely enough to satisfy his demands. All these (repentance, good works, faith) are not the basis of election, but the fruit of election. In very clear terms Scripture tells us that election is not based on any merit of man, present or future. The one and only foundation of election is the kind intention of his will (Eph 1:5). If we want to know how God saved us we look to the cross, but if we want to know why God saved us we are compelled to answer with one reason alone: he loved sinful men.
6 As God has appointed the elect to glory, so he has by the eternal and completely free purpose of his will foreordained all the means.13
We have here nothing more than a specific application of the principle set forth in the first paragraph of this chapter. There we are told that the decree of God does not set aside the free working of second causes. If God has ordained that flowers are to grow in a certain field, he has also ordained that rain should fall there. If God has decreed the salvation of a certain man, he has also ordained that the gospel should be proclaimed to him and that he should exercise the faith that flows from a regenerated heart. We cannot reason that if God is going to save a friend of ours then he has ordained it and it will come to pass and leave it at that for God has also decreed that someone should tell him how his sins may be forgiven in Christ.
Therefore those who are elected (being fallen in Adam) are redeemed by Christ,14 effectually called to faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, justified, adopted, sanctified,15 and kept by his power through faith to salvation.16 None but the elect are redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved.17
The work of the three Persons of the Godhead in election is in perfect harmony. The Father chose from among the whole of humanity who had been ruined by Adam’s fall those he wanted for himself. By his sovereign decree he ordained that these should be redeemed by Christ. Those God elected are those for whom Christ died. If this were not the case then Christ would have died for some whom the Father had not chosen to receive eternal life. Put another way, Christ would have offered his life for some his Father never intended to save. This would indicate a working at contrary purposes, a division in the perfect and eternal will of the Trinity. Such a division of will in the mind of the perfectly wise God who is, according to all our confessions and creeds, one God is difficult to imagine. According to the harmonious outworking of the one eternal will of God the elect (and they alone) chosen by the Father are those he willed to redeem by means of Christ’s death. The harmony among the members of the Trinity extends to the work of the Spirit. By the Spirit this will of God determined in eternity is invariably worked out in time so that the elect are called to faith, justified, sanctified and ultimately glorified. It would indicate a conflict in the mind and will of God if those the Father had chosen and the Son died to redeem were not given by the Spirit the faith, repentance and perseverance necessary to bring them to eternal glory. Since the will of God is one, we know that only the elect enjoy these because it is only by his work that fallen, sinful man could ever enjoy the salvation that he offers.
7 The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care,18 so that those who are heeding the will of God revealed in his Word, and who are obeying it, may be assured of their eternal election from the certainty of their effectual calling.19 So shall this doctrine promote the praise, reverence, and admiration of God,20 and encourage humility21 and diligence,22 and bring much comfort23 to all who sincerely obey the Gospel.
The doctrine of predestination needs to be handled with special care. It is easy to get caught up in speculation as to the ‘hows’, ‘whens’ and ‘whys’ of election and forget about the practical importance of the doctrine. God does not reveal himself to man to satisfy our curiosity, but in order that we might live godly lives. Believers are directed to be diligent in becoming assured of our place among the elect. We know that all the gifts necessary for ultimate salvation are given to the elect, including faith, holiness and righteousness. To the extent that we see these being developed in our life we can know that we are among the elect. We can be certain of one thing: the world and Satan have no interest in our growing in holiness. If this occurs in our lives we can know it is from God, a gift granted alone to the elect. When this is properly understood, no man congratulates himself for making to the status of ‘chosen one’, but instead he praises God for his grace in choosing such an unworthy sinner. We can rest assured that if any of these gift belong to us the rest will follow, including glorification. This is a great comfort to all who struggle with a lack of progress in their spiritual lives that they desire above all else.